The ankle—that famous, concerning, inflamed ankle—had a day on Sunday. Patrick Mahomes limped and hobbled on it. But he also threw and dashed and spun on it. And, with no less than a third trip to the Super Bowl in the past four seasons at stake, the Chiefs turned to Mahomes and Mahomes turned … on that ankle, barreling toward glory and Super Bowl LVII.
The backdrop: Chiefs-Bengals, AFC championship game, late in the fourth quarter, third-and-4 at the Cincinnati 47-yard-line, tie game. Mahomes dropped back, scanned the field, saw no one open and scrambled to his right. If pain shot through his right leg, he didn’t show it. It didn’t slow him. He picked up five yards and, when he reached the Cincinnati sideline, he received a light—and, it turns out, fortuitous—shove from defensive end Joseph Ossai. The unnecessary roughness penalty pushed Kansas City into field-goal range. Harrison Butker’s 45-yard field goal pushed the Chiefs into the season’s final game.
For a franchise that went a half-century between Super Bowl appearances, this, all of this—conference championship games, Lamar Hunt trophies raised over so many heads, drama and delirium—has become routine. The Chiefs secured their latest late January triumph, 23–20, behind a rabid defense and a frozen crowd, after a week of terrible injury news, with more injuries on Sunday. Afterward, Clark Hunt, Lamar’s son and current franchise CEO, nodded at Mahomes, saying, “Superman put on his cape.”
Indeed, they also have Mahomes, the youngest quarterback in NFL history to win a Lombardi Trophy, Super Bowl MVP and league MVP. He should win the latter again soon. If all goes according to plan, he’ll win the other two on Feb. 12 in Arizona, against the Eagles.
But that ankle! Surely, it portended doom. Mahomes injured it in the first half against the Jaguars, went out, came back and gutted out a victory. The diagnosis was the dreaded high-ankle sprain, which typically sidelines mortals for two to three weeks and can linger much longer, wrecking the most promising of seasons.
As the conference championship games approached, the remaining quarterbacks made for the youngest final four since conference championships started in 1970. Their average age was 25 years and 98 days old. At 27, Mahomes was the old man. He had the limp to prove it.
The week unfolded with ankle updates, ankle speculation, ankle treatments and ankle predictions. In truth, no one really knew. Mahomes found this sprain similar to one he suffered against the Jaguars in the 2019 opener. The only difference was which ankle. That season, it hurt when he landed after his throwing motion; this season, it seemed worse, because he uses his right ankle to push off when he throws. That said, after the ’19 injury, Mahomes started the next week, throwing for 443 yards and four touchdowns.
Mahomes devoted so much attention to his injury that he brought his wife and their two children to treatments, because that was the only way he would spend time with his kids. He pushed only as much as his trainers and coaches allowed. More than half of the questions posed to Mahomes and his coach, Andy Reid, were about the ankle. But the quarterback practiced on Wednesday and on Thursday and again on Friday. He laughed at all the video clips circulating from football fans turned doctors. (Ranging from, He’s fine! to, He can’t walk!). “I don’t know how much you [can tell] from me walking,” he said.
The truth? “People don’t know how hurt he really was,” says Brett Veach, the Chiefs general manager, though the GM would only say it after the game.
Anyone listening to Mahomes’ answers on non-ankle questions should have picked up a few clues. Mahomes dismissed all the trash talk coming from Cincinnati, reminding the world that he never considers himself the underdog. He spoke with Tom Brady for advice. And, when he looked at another match-up against the Bengals, the team that talked and talked and had beaten Kansas City three straight times, he knew it wasn’t his ankle or his health that would decide the conference champion. He had led the NFL in QBR on throws inside the pocket (73.0). He had his best day inside the pocket (79.6) against the Bengals in Week 13.
“We’ve had great football games against them,” he said. “But they’ve been able to beat us situationally at the end of games.”
If revenge is indeed best served cold, then the conditions for the Chiefs on Sunday were pretty much ideal. Temperatures dipped into the teens before kickoff and only dropped from there.
All of greater-Cincinnati seemed intent on heightening the tension throughout the week. Mayor Aftab Pureval made a trash-talk video that soon went viral. It contained an official proclamation that Burrow take a paternity test to prove he’s Mahomes’s father. Mahomes’s wife, Brittany, called it “WEAK” and “embarrassing” on social media.
Bengals players christened the Chiefs’ home venue Burrowhead Stadium, a nod to his 3–0 record against Kansas City. (The barb wasn’t all that accurate, since two of his victories came at home in Cincinnati.) But Burrow did win last year’s conference championship game at Arrowhead Stadium, and he arrived almost exactly a year later decked out in pink and wearing a t-shirt donning a teddy bear that held a red tag. It read: “Sorry in Advance.”
Well, then. The Chiefs were the first NFL team to host five consecutive championship games, and their fanbase responded with T-shirts and billboards, like the one that read, simply, #revenge. They believed in Veach, in his revamping of the roster, in Andy Reid and in Mahomes above all. Sunday marked the fourth time these teams would play in 392 days. This time, Kansas City planned to win.
Fans donned snow gear and long underwear to tailgate. They still managed to work their barbecue grills. One waved a “Who Dey think Dey Are” sign at passing cars. Every exhale was visible. NFL Films should have set up in the parking lot and filmed.
Veach joked earlier this week that the Chiefs ranked among the healthiest teams all year. But like the fireworks that exploded overhead an hour before kickoff, his statement proved premature. Mahomes’s ankle wasn’t the only issue. His favorite target, tight end Travis Kelce, was struggling with an inflamed back. But as they left the locker room before kickoff, both were in uniform. Mahomes gave his teammates a simple and yet powerful message: “It’s going to take all of us.”
Kelce finished this season with 110 receptions, 1,338 yards and 12 touchdowns. Mahomes found him early, yet again, on the Chiefs’ first offensive possession. But the quarterback’s near touchdown throw to wideout Kadarius Toney came loose as he hit the ground.
The Chiefs’ defense, like Mahomes’s ankle, had a day. That started with stud defensive lineman Chris Jones, who dedicated his off-season to this particular game. Reid kept hearing the defensive players throughout the week; they teemed with energy, they wanted to play on Monday night, in a McDonald’s parking lot, if need be. “Guys were as pumped up as I’ve seen ‘em going into a football game,” Mahomes said afterward.
The energy translated, as the Chiefs chased Burrow from the pocket and wrestled him to the ground. Perhaps this owed to linebacker Willie Gay, owner of perhaps the largest portable speaker in professional sports, the one that’s taller than a toddler, sits near his locker and has a strobe light. “What can I say?” he asked earlier this week. “In here, we like to thump.”
Thump, they did. They hit Burrow early, hit him often and hit him hard. They netted five sacks against an injury-depleted offensive line that held up well last week against Buffalo. Defensive end Frank Clark added 1.5 sacks to his career postseason total of 12, which is already tied for the fourth-most in league history. “Frank has been playing out of his mind,” Jones said. All this thumping led to two interceptions and at least three other pass attempts that hit defenders in the hands.
As the Chiefs’ offense zoomed down field and the Chiefs’ defense full-stopped the Bengals, the game seemed headed toward blowout city. Mahomes, on that ankle, sprinted right and stopped on a dime, throwing without his feet set, while pivoting backward, to Kelce (with that back) in the end zone. Touchdown. Mahomes walked to the sideline and thanked his linemen. His connection with Kelce marked their 13th postseason touchdown, moving them past Joe Montana and Jerry Rice for the second-most playoff scores of all-time, only two behind Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
But Kansas City also never fully capitalized on its statistical edge. The Chiefs stalled on their first two scoring drives, netting only six points. They called laterals that didn’t work, saw Mahomes misfire an attempt that turned into a fumble and watched a 13–3 lead evaporate. Just like last year.
In January 2022, the Chiefs jumped out to a 21–3 advantage, led 21–10 at half and were tied at 21 by the end of the third quarter. In January 2023, they jumped out to a 13–3 advantage, led 13–6 at the half and were tied 13–13 midway through the third. The Bengals roared back last year to win that game in overtime. Would the sequel really follow the same plot?
Clark had spent all week telling younger teammates they needed to enjoy nights like this. That they were more rare than they might seem. Yes, he admitted, Burrow “got that Peyton Manning in him.” But the Chiefs, he said, needed to “get our laugh back.” Meaning the last one.
This time, the Chiefs regained the lead. Mahomes was limping but undeterred. On third down at the 19-yard-line, he stepped up in the pocket and threw a dart to Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the end zone that was a little late but just out of reach of a diving defender. That made it 20–13, Chiefs.
Burrow remained cool as ever, even on a night of perpetual harassment. He held a 5–1 record in the playoffs, the only loss coming last season, to the Rams in Super Bowl LVI. He played, as described earlier this week by Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, “nifty” and “like he’s got six eyeballs around his head.” Burrow never panicked. Instead, on a fourth-and-6 from the Chiefs’ 41 he found wideout Ja’Marr Chase streaking down field on a go route and threw a perfect pass between defenders. Chase had juked right, ever so slightly, to create a pinch of separation, then timed the catch with similar perfection. Two plays later, Samaje Perine pushed his way into the end zone. That made it 20–20, advantage nobody.
The teams’ subsequent drives came up empty—there were two Chiefs punts, a Bengals punt and a Burrow arm punt (a third-and-medium bomb for Tee Higgins that was deflected and intercepted, though it still flipped the field 50 yards). Then came the scramble, the field goal and the celebration. Then: sweet, glorious revenge.
Mahomes vs. Burrow is shaping up like Brady vs. Manning. But that’s for another night, another season. As the song “All I Do Is Win” blared over the speakers at the stadium no longer known as Burrowhead, the Chiefs ascended yet another stage and held high another trophy named after their founder. Kelce, who grew up in Ohio and played at the University of Cincinnati, grabbed the microphone and spoke indirectly to the mayor, who he told to, “Know yo role and shut yo mouth.”
Clark Hunt said it felt like the Chiefs had confronted a season’s worth of adversity in the past week alone. Injuries before the game. Injuries during it. All the trash talk. “Even the mayor came at me,” Mahomes said.
At the lectern afterward, he sighed deeply, as if relieved. He said he didn’t expect to run much and ran a whole lot anyway on Sunday night. He said the ankle hurt the most on the play where he tried to pass and fumbled. He sold the same silly theme they all did: That nobody believed in them, this team hosting its fifth consecutive AFC championship game, manned by the greatest quarterback, healthy ankle or not, on earth.
In a little over a week, Kansas City will fly to Phoenix for the Andy Reid Bowl. This marks the coach’s latest Super Bowl appearance, only this time, the game is against his former team.
He’ll answer a million questions about that over the fortnight ahead. But on Sunday, all they did was celebrate (and win). Cigar smoke wafted down the corridors of the stadium the Chiefs reclaimed. Reid threw his arm around his wife, Tammy, and kissed her on the cheek. Tammy was championship-ready, clad in a fur hat, a sequin jacket and black leather pants.
Gay cranked the volume on his speaker. Mahomes walked without a limp, but the ankle appeared bruised. Players clamored for the trophy, passing it around. Paul Rudd walked by and few seemed to notice. Perhaps that’s because Kansas City already has an international celebrity in its locker room.
Then Clark stopped him. He pulled from a cigar, then spoke. “We gotta get another one,” he told the actor, and he meant another ring.